Emory Report
October 31, 2005
Volume 58, Number 9


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October 31 , 2005
Freshman English course goes bump in the night

BY eric rangus

Haunted houses, imperiled maidens, evil vampires, psychological fear: All Halloween staples, but they also are essential elements in gothic literature.

A highly stylized literary genre that peaked in the 1800s, the gothic aesthetic continues into modern times throrugh not only books but film and even video games. Indeed, gothic’s pop-culture life often overwhelms its presence as a serious and significant fiction device.

“Classic Gothic” is a section of ENG 181, Writing About Literature, that introduces freshmen to novels, novellas and short stories that form the core of this distinctive style.

“I was looking for something that would involve genre, and popular kinds of stories, because I thought that would grab freshmen,” said English Lecturer Jean De Silva, who conceived of and teaches the course. She earned her doctorate at Emory last year studying popular fiction, specifically Edgar Rice Burrows’ dime-store novels of the early 20th century. When offered the opportunity to teach ENG 181, she expanded her interest in genre fiction and came up with gothic. She put together the syllabus over the summer.

“I wanted to make sure the work had real literary quality,” said De Silva whose upbeat demeanor contrasts with gothic’s often moody tone. By calling the course “Classic Gothic,” De Silva wanted to inform students that, rather than focus on “scary stories” of modern times (although the classic readings certainly do not lack chills), the coursework would go a bit deeper.

“What’s really neat about the gothic is that it’s gripping enough to have plot-driven elements that appeal to students, but there are also some really good writers who sort of wandered into the genre,” she said.

Those writers include Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen (who wrote a gothic spoof called Northanger Abbey), Mary Shelley (whose Frankenstein is considered the masterpiece of the gothic genre; the class will read and discuss it the first two weeks of November) and Horace Walpole, who wrote the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1765. Later writers include Americans Henry James and Joseph Conrad, whose work centers on the terror inside as opposed to the monsters on the outside.

In all, De Silva will touch on literature than spans three centuries, and the cycle (from the beginnings of the genre with Walpole, to the monsters of the center and then the psychological fear of the end) she wants to complete is by design.

The monster cycle is the drawing card, but De Silva carefully points out that while much of 19th century gothic fiction was not necessarily high quality, masterworks like Frankenstein and many vampire stories of the era were essentially literary questions about playing god or defining class struggle—wrapped in a haunting, supernatural package.

All the reading aside, the course title of ENG 181 is Writing About Literature, and “Classic Gothic” is not an exception. Students must complete six formal papers over the semester as well as submit informal writings prior to each class related to that day’s material.

De Silva gave students an option for their final paper, due in mid-December. They could broaden a previous research paper by adding sources, or they could show off their understanding of gothic as a genre by writing an introduction to their own gothic story.

“Their eyes lit up,” De Silva said. “Writing critical papers is one thing, but [adopting gothic style] is a great way to show an understanding of it.”

With Halloween falling right in the middle of the semester, De Silva knew that the class would be itching to do something special. Ideas to mark All Hallow’s Eve included holding class in Oakland Cemetery, eating as a group at the popular restaurant Six Feet Under, or watching a scary movie. But the unfriendly logistics of off-campus travel intervened, and the holiday will be celebrated merely with candy and the creaking of De Silva’s office door. It’s located just outside the Callaway Building classroom, and she makes sure to open it slowly—the creaking is louder that way. It’s the best she can do to instill moody fear when class is held in a old computer lab with a tile floor.

“The teaching of gothic literature is becoming increasingly popular,” De Silva said. “I’ve heard of what other classes do to try and re-create the terror—like holding class on a rooftop or having readings in a graveyard. Maybe we can do that another time.”